Q&A: Walter Brueggemann, Miroslav Volf & Richard Rohr On Communion

Walter Brueggemann, Miroslav Volf and Richard Rohr are thinkers from different traditions, theological schools and philosophical approaches – and they are all deeply influential within the body of Christ. The three 2014 Catalyst Live speakers answered questions about Communion for Mission Catalyst.

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Miroslav Volf

Theologian and public intellectual

Should Communion, the Eucharist, be a badge of membership or should it be open to anybody, whether they are within the Church or not, believers or not?

volfI think that the nexus of Communion and baptism is very important to keep, so that Communion is not a kind of indiscriminate meal, with invitation to all. It is a meal of those who have been part of the body of Christ. It doesn’t mean that others are discriminated against, it simply means that Communion is not a modality of evangelism or that Communion isn’t the space that the Church is, where anybody can be welcomed. It presumes a certain relationship to Christ, I think. 

There is often a heavy emphasis on explaining that there is nothing special or transcendently powerful in the waters of baptism, or the elements of Communion. Do we lose something when we do that?

Yes, I think it ends up being superfluous. If there is nothing in that water, if there is no connection, if we evacuate even the symbolic dimension of it and it’s just water, why do we use water? Why can’t I replace it with something else? I think the sense of proper sacramentality is important to keep. 

Richard Rohr

Franciscan Catholic author and speaker

Across the Christian Church, the table, the Eucharist, has been used as a way of defining who is in and who is out. What do you think Jesus would have thought of our use of the table for defining membership?

rohrThis is so clear in the scriptures, especially Luke’s gospel. In every single meal setting in Luke, Jesus is either eating with the wrong people, inviting a woman into a male symposium meal, not washing his hands or not eating the right food. There is no sense that the meal – table fellowship as we now call it – was used to define membership or superiority. In fact, quite the opposite. He uses the meal to be inclusive, to invite the outsider. Even the stories that we’re all familiar with, that we call the multiplication of loaves or fish – the image there is of abundance, of plenty for everybody. What is the point of mentioning the seven baskets and twelve baskets being left over except to say: ‘there is plenty for everybody and there is no checklist about who gets it and who doesn’t’? 

I’m not saying we should cheapen the meal and say it means nothing, but we Catholics often say [about the Eucharist] that ‘the Protestants don’t understand’ and I say: ‘do you understand? Do you think you begin to understand the mystery of presence?’ They say: ‘they’re not worthy.’ And I say: ‘are you worthy?’

In fact, the verse we use before we approach the altar is from the gospel: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. Say the word and my soul will be healed.” So we all publicly say in a loud voice, ‘Lord I am not worthy,’ and then we walk up as if we’re worthy. So our own words convict us. But most people don’t observe ritual enough to see that it’s often filled with contradictions. 

Our wonderful Pope Francis has said that the sacraments may no longer be used as ‘prizes for the perfect’. They are ‘medicine for those who need healing’. But we have turned that around, we have turned medicine for the journey, for the unworthy because we need help, into rewards for good behaviour – I would say that this is at the heart of the heresy of the Church. And this is accepted heresy – people don’t call it heresy, but it’s pure heresy – which appeals to the ego. Things that appeal to the ego, where you define people as higher and lower, for some reason those are never called heresy. 

In the Protestant traditions we seem to have a very uneasy relationship with ritual. Something like the doctrine of transubstantiation is particularly troubling to many Protestants. What are your thoughts on it?

Transubstantiation is a term from 13th century scholastic philosophy. The Church has no competence or authority to impose a philosophical position as if it’s the gospel.

Transubstantiation is a philosophical definition that appealed to a certain mind in a certain century to try to explain the ‘how’ of [the Eucharist] but to try to also hold on to the real.
And here I’d be very conservative Catholic. Incarnation has to be real. Spirit can take matter as its revelation place. The physical world is the revelation place of God. We see it in the body of Jesus, I see it in the body of Christ, we see it in the body of the Eucharist. Paul saw that very clearly. 

quote rohr

I believe in Real Presence. Capital R, capital P. That God is either present in the physical world or the game’s over. That’s Christianity. That’s our trump card. That’s incarnation. So Catholicism was right on, I believe, in insisting on real presence. 

So in the same moment I’m probably sounding very conservative and very rebellious. I hope I’m just orthodox. 

Incarnation is incarnation. From Jesus to the human person to the creation itself. And in the Eucharist we focus that, we struggle with it, distil it into one moment. If you say it’s just a symbol, well then the divinisation of the human person is maybe just a symbol. Then maybe I’m not really the body of Christ? No. 

I think Protestantism fought some battles it didn’t need to fight, and overreacted, as reformations always do: they threw out the baby with the bathwater. If we could state it a little more healthily, and you could stop reacting against our unhealthy statement, I think we could find what Jesus clearly talks about in John’s gospel. If people are going to say they love the scriptures, then [they should hear Jesus when he says:] “my flesh is real food” for the life of the world. 

He is bringing this whole mystery of presence to the material, physical level. He doesn’t say think about it, he doesn’t say argue about it, he says eat it. You know it the way you love your wife. You don’t know that in your head, you know that in your body. 

Could the eternal Christ be present in a physical moment of material bread and wine? If not, why not? 

So I am very Eucharistic. I think if we didn’t have such a ritual as Eucharist, we’d have to create it, it’s so perfect for the message we want to share it with everybody. But there’s the problem: we didn’t share it with everybody. We decided who was worthy and who wasn’t. Which ruined the whole message. 

Presence is more subtle than imposing a 13th century philosophical definition. It’s amorphous, it’s cellular, it’s relational. But theology often didn’t know how to deal with the subtlety of presence. 

And so it came up with transubstantiation.

Walter Brueggemann

Old Testament scholar and theologian

In our desire as Protestants to differentiate ourselves from Catholic practice, we often strongly emphasise the ordinariness of rituals like Communion and baptism. Have we lost anything in so doing?

brueggemannI think we have. I think the two dangers are on the one hand to make it so ordinary that it carries no force, or on the other hand to treat it like it’s magic. And to find a way between those is very difficult. I am very much informed about that by a book by William Cavanaugh, a Roman Catholic scholar. He wrote that the Roman Catholic bishops in Chile finally figured out that the Eucharist was the main antidote to Pinochet’s torture and violence, because what the Eucharist does is to create communities of trusting, shared disciples. So I think we have to recover the public political economic significance without engaging in liturgic magic, because the Eucharist is a performance of the abundance of God in a society that is preoccupied with scarcity. It is a very countercultural activity. But I think it has become so routinised that its symbolic force has largely been emptied. And therefore I think many people come to the Eucharist with very privatised notions of ‘getting right with Jesus’ rather than seeing that it is a public declaration of an alternative way of being in the world. I think high Church liturgy people and low Church people can work at that together. Because it really has to do with the interpretive lens through which we think about our worship.

Should people who do not yet believe in Jesus be allowed to share in the Eucharist? 

That’s a disputed question. In my Church, the United Church of Christ, we have a very significant African American population, and their tradition is to call the Communion table the ‘welcome table’. And I suppose people who have been as marginalised as African Americans are not going to be too busy setting up [those kinds of] standards and norms, but everybody’s welcome. And I incline in that direction.quote brueggemann

I incline to think that everybody ought to have access to the alternative world of abundance and reconciliation. So we don’t have to ‘qualify’. But I worship at an Episcopal church and our bishop is fairly stringent on wanting to guard the table against easy access. So I’m a little unsettled about it, but that’s my tilt, that the goodness of God overwhelms all of our capacity to qualify. 

Our different ‘tilts’ on the Eucharist can seem quite confusing to people, I think. On one hand, we tell people there is absolutely nothing special about the elements, but on the other hand if you take it in an unworthy manner, God will kill you.

[laughs] That’s right! And clearly many people in the Church who take Communion – and we each have our own list of who they are – are unworthy and eat and drink unworthily. As unworthily as any outsider might, so who knows?!

When the Eucharist has become ‘too ordinary’, when we are not engaged, is there still value in doing it, regardless of how we feel? 

I think so. That’s exactly right. If you think of the analogue of the family evening meal around the table, you don’t have to feel like being there. You just do it and, in the very process of doing it, one is reinforced in the understanding that this is my family and I belong to this family and I have obligations to this family and so on. You just do it. One of my teachers used to say the wonderful thing about the Church is that when you cannot believe this stuff, somebody else is doing that for you, and you can count on that. 

Miroslav Volf, Walter Brueggemenn and Richard Rohr were talking to
Jonathan Langley.

This article is part of The Communion of sinners issue of Mission Catalyst.

Reproduced here with the kind permission of BMS World Mission